In a sense I've always been the psychoanalytic critic and reader-response critic I am today. From an early age, I was curious, why do people respond to things differently. Especially, why did my schoolmates respond differently from the way I did to the radio programs we used to listen to in the 1930s and '40s? Why do some people find a certain joke funny and others not?
Because I began teaching a course on comedy, I read the many theories of why we laugh. Of them all, only Freud's made sense to me, because he looked at the details of the text, as I, a literary critic, would. I thus began a long detour into psychoanalysis and psychology.
I trained at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, and I became interested (and convinced) by psychoanalytic accounts of character: the oral character, the anal character, and so on, and the characteristic wishes and fears associated with them. I also learned about the characteristic defenses people use: repression, denial, sublimation, or isolation. I came to understand human character as the combination of characteristic wishes and fears with characteristic defenses.
Later, I combined that way of inferring an identity with a theory of the psychoanalyst Heinz Lichtenstein, that one could "read" a person's character or "identity" as a theme and variations. That is, one has a personal style that can be expressed as a theme, almost like a literary theme. For example, I could say of myself, I want to see into people's minds and lives, but I don't want to get close to them. Or, I might say: I tend to see things in polar opposites. One could then "read"--interpret--what I do or say as a variation (like a musical variation) on such themes. We make our lives as artists make works of art. We have a conception, partly conscious, mostly unconscious, and we shape everything to that end.
I found this idea powerful: I could closely relate a writer's literary style to his or her life story, each expressing the same identity theme or themes. One could relate, for example, such oddities as Shakespeare's reputation as "gentle," i.e., gentlemanly, with the violence of his plays. I wrote some such accounts in Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (1966), in chapters of The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968) that dealt with Conrad, in The Brain of Robert Frost (1988), and, in later years, essays on H.D., F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Shaw. My real interest, however, had never left the question of readers' responses.
I found, doing an experiment in 1968, that this concept of identity applied to re-creation as well as creation. Readers shape the texts they read to fit their identity themes. My research led to two books, Poems in Persons (1973) and 5 Readers Reading (1975). To give you a proper account of those, though, I need to say more about identity.
In the 1970s and '80s, I learned that new knowledge in cognitive science and the study of the brain confirmed this picture of a personal theme-and-variations. That is, we now know that each human brain is different, and the differences come from childhood experiences. In other words, as psychoanalysis says, our childhood leads each of us to develop a different personal style or identity theme. Our identities are quite literally written into our brains from the time we are born until we have entered adolescence.
Through free association or some other form of self-knowledge, we can to some extent know our identity, but mostly it will remain unconscious. Similarly, other people can "read" my identity, but only through their identities. Thus, there is no final knowledge either of oneself or others, although we have knowledge enough of one another to get along in the world.
The "mind's new science" added another dimension to this picture. Reacting against the stimulus-response behaviorism of the first half of the century, cognitive psychologists, psycholinguists, and philosophers of mind developed new models for perception, cognitition, narrative, memory, and the like. They concluded that we perceive even simple objects by an active process. We bring hypotheses or "schemas" to bear on what our senses tell us. We "make sense" of the unstructured stream of perception. This is the basis for all our cognitive activities. And this view holds sway today.
More specifically, we perceive through a feedback. That is, we bring a hypothesis or "schema" to bear on sense data ("Is this a book?"), and we are either satisfied or dissatisfied with how our hypothesis works. If satisfied, we conclude, yes, it is a book. If dissatisfied, we try to gather more data or we try another hypothesis. Perhaps, Is this a typescript? But we are always active. We actively construe reality.
If we imagine the mind as a hierarchy with raw sense data at the bottom and abstract ideas at the top, we construe reality by bringing hypotheses from the top down to the bottom to test against the sense data and bringing the data up from the bottom toward the top to confirm or disconfirm the hypotheses. We understand the world from top down in order to understand it from bottom up. There is no way to experience "pure" data apart from our construction of it. Our minds are simply not built to do so.
This model from cognitive science fits precisely the psychoanalytic account of personal identity as a theme and variations. Identity is at the top. That is, the hypotheses I bring to bear, the hypotheses I choose from all that my culture offers me, the way I sense the outcomes of those hypotheses, what outcomes will satisfy me, how I feel at confirmation and disconfirmation, all these express my personal style or identity. All are, in varying degrees, personal. The whole process of top-down, bottom-up perception and knowledge and memory is governed by my characteristic style.
This combination of a psychoanalytic account of identity with a psychological account of how we perceive the world leads to a model of the human being, the model I put forth in The I (1985). That is, my personal identity puts hypotheses out into the world. Some of these hypotheses are physiological and are much the same for all human beings. I see colors the same as just about anyone on the globe. I conclude that the fainter sound is farther away, and virtually all humans do that. Other hypotheses will be highly individual, my fondness for theories of personality (i.e., my hypothesis that they will make sense of the world for me) or my hypothesis that getting close to other people may be dangerous. And some of my hypotheses will be shared with many other people, but not all humans, my hypotheses for understanding English, for example, which I share with all other anglophones. That hypothesis is culture-wide. Others might be shared only by a certain community. My left-wing hypotheses for understanding American society, for example, only people at my end of the political spectrum share. I share my psychoanalytic ways of reading things only with the psychoanalytic community.
In short, my characteristic style includes a body and a culture as well as my unique history. My identity combines a human identity, a cultural identity, and an individual identity.
This model applies strongly and easily to literature. In 1968 I conducted experiments with readers which led me to my first model for literary response The Dynamics of Literary Response, 1968). My subjects responded to literature in four modes: expectation, fantasies, defenses, meaning. That is, I bring to a literary experience (or any experience, really) certain expectations. These are the hypotheses I bring to bear on any text: that it is in English, that, if its lines end halfway across the page, it is poetry, that a psychoanalytic reading will succeed.
Then, can I shape from it the particular fantasies that I wish and fear? Will I be able to use its formal devices to control those fantasies so they will give me pleasure and not fear? Will I be able to transform the text so that it makes sense to me? These are hypotheses we bring to bear on a text. They become what we do to experience that text: fantasize, defend, transform.
These hypotheses like all the hypotheses we bring to bear on reality fit into a hierarchy. The lowest are the physiological, and those just about everybody shares. We would all agree, for example, on what parts of a book are black, what parts white, where these different splotches are on the pages, high or low, what splotches are physically next to other parts, all matters that are very close to sense data.
Other, more complex and sophisticated hypotheses are cultural. I possess the hypotheses for reading English or French, and I can use them to read letters from any language in the Roman alphabet. I lack, however, the hypotheses to read Arabic or Chinese, even the writing. We assume, for example, that pages at the "back" of the book (if held with spine to the left) "come later" than pages at the front, although in languages like Hebrew, that are read from right to left, that is not the case. For those, even a very basic hypothesis has to be different.
As we take the text in (through the basic hypotheses we use for understanding language), we each make from it the particular fantasies that are characteristic for us. Those fantasies are probably highly charged emotionally, with themes like cleanliness or dirtiness, power or helplessness, hunger or satisfaction, closeness and distance.
We then use the forms we make from the literary work (parallelism, omissions, special wordings, rhythms, rhymes, alliterations) as psychological defense mechanisms. We use them to transform our fantasies. We make our fantasies acceptable to us, neither too anxiety-arousing nor too bland.
We "make sense" of the work. We turn the charged, risky fantasies into something tamer that we simply can admire. We give the work, in other words, a meaning of the kind that satisfies us, Marxist, for example, or deconstructive or Christian. It is this experience of transformation and mastery that gives us the pleasure of literature, if, like most literary critics, it is part of our identity to get pleasure from mastering a text. Simpler folk may simply and less self-consciously enjoy.
And all this is highly personal Just as one has a personal style of writing, of walking, of talking, of making love, so one has a personal style of reading and otherwise responding to literature, for example, by laughing. In Laughing (1982, translated into Chinese, 1991), I was able to answer the question of my childhood and show that we each have a personal sense of humor. But all literary responses are governed by that identity that includes a bodily identity and a cultural identity as well as the unique personal history that has made us what we are.
This is the thinking behind reader response. Its basic premise is that all knowledge comes directly or indirectly from some human perception. Nothing but divine revelation could go automatically from a text into the brain. A claim that one is reading "the text" is simply a projection of internal states of mind onto an outer reality. It is a claim that one's own perception is somehow exempt from the imperfect, identity-driven processes of perception that are part of our limited human condition. The claim to be "right," the claim to have grasped an absolute truth is a claim of privilege against others' perceptions or beliefs. it is a claim that one has a special access to reality that others are denied.
Therefore, reader-response thinking has important consequences for teaching and writing about literature, ideas I developed in Poems and Persons (1973) and The Critical I (1992).
Because one cannot teach interpretations, one teaches at most ways of interpreting. Reader-response theory leads to a new way of teaching literature, now widely used in the U.S. One reads texts, but one also discusses, How am I reading this text? How are you reading it? What can we learn from each other? Students explore their own and others' ways of perceiving literary texts.
Criticism ceases to be the writing of final statements, because interpretation is never final. Criticism becomes a dialogue in which we ask, What can I gain from using your reading? What can you gain from using mine? In principle, this dialogue has no ending, no finality. Claims are always, as in science, provisional and contingent, depending on context, on the consensus of one's peers, and on unknowable future developments. Instead of proclaiming truths, critics need to engage in a continuing discussion in which each critic seeks to learn from and contribute to the readings by others.
Such a criticism asks for a different way of writing. Because perceptions will vary from culture to culture, interpretive community to interpretive community, and from individual to invidual, critics can no longer convincingly write "truths.
Because criticism is more tentative, more an individual view, the writing of criticism has to become more personal, more informal, often even autobiographical. In some ways, we need to turn back to the nineteenth century's personal essays about literature. This has become a trend in the United States, for example, in my own attempts to write criticism as personal essay, as dialogue, and even as a "novel of ideas" (Death in a Delphi Seminar, 1995). And as in the first paragraph of this essay.
Updated January 27, 1997
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